Teaching Israel

With first iCON in 5 years, iCenter to navigate educating about an Israel at a crossroads

After COVID-imposed lull, conference organizers thrilled as over 500 people set to attend three-day event in Chicago, about a quarter of them Israelis

Hundreds of Jewish educators of all types, ages and denominations will gather in Chicago beginning today for iCenter’s three-day iCON, where they will discuss and learn how to teach the complicated and now thornier-than-usual topic of Israel.

Meant to be a biennial gathering, this will be the first iCON in nearly five years because of the coronavirus pandemic.

“For us, this is a real opportunity to be back, to be back in person, to gather the field, to see how much it has grown despite COVID,” Aliza Goodman, one of iCON’s organizers, told eJewishPhilanthropy.

The conference, which runs through Wednesday at the Marriott Marquis Chicago, comes at a particularly fraught period for Israel, as regular mass demonstrations rock the country in protest of the government’s proposed judicial overhaul.

For the iCenter, one of the first organizations to focus on Israel education not as a discrete area of focus but as something to be infused in all aspects of Jewish education, the situation in Israel presents a particular challenge. On the one hand, the current moment is undoubtedly out of the ordinary, perhaps unparalleled in Israeli history, and therefore has to be addressed in some way at the upcoming conference, but at the same time, it is not the sum total of all that is Israel so it shouldn’t completely dominate the discussions either, iCON organizers said.

For opponents of the proposed legislation, the overhaul represents an assault on the strength and independence of the country’s court system and Israeli democracy in general, while to supporters, it is a necessary corrective for an overly powerful, activist judiciary. This issue is particularly acute among the more than 100 Israelis who are participating in iCON this year. (Roughly a quarter of the more than 500 participants in this year’s gathering are coming from Israel, the rest from North America.)

“We are all affected by what’s going on to different degrees,” said Anne Lanski, the founding CEO of iCenter. “Obviously, for those coming from Israel, it is different than for those who are here. But it’s deeply personal to all of us. And so it’s going to be part [of iCON]. It will be addressed directly in some places, but indirectly it will be a thread through every single conversation that happens, every single experience that happens because we are what we are and we’re all very tied to what’s going on right now.”

And yet, to Lanski, this current struggle should not substantially change the basics of Israel education.

“Educational frameworks that have to be changed every single time something happens are not fundamentally solid foundations,” she said. “The approach, the educational approach and framework, the language, the commitment, those things don’t change. The content of some of the presentations gets adjusted, but that is true anytime.”

The iCenter

Lanski, who founded iCenter in 2008, reflected on how dramatically both her organization and the field of Israel education have expanded over the past 15 years. When the group held its first iCON in 2009, just 50 people attended, all of them teachers in American Jewish day schools or Hebrew schools.

Now, she said, it’s “Israelis and North Americans, frontline educators and engagement professionals, all the way to CEOs, funders, lay leaders, and everything in the middle across geographies, across denominations, across politics, across everything that normally divides us.”

And Israel education, which was once a superficial, separate curriculum, is now “integral to Jewish education,” Lanski said. “Israel education isn’t 50 teachers anymore, it’s the entire North American Jewish community in every setting, in every organization.”

The iCON focuses less on teaching facts and figures and more on broader concepts and ways of thinking about Israel. The three-day gathering is made up of dozens of sessions on topics like Israeli television, Jewish-Arab relationships, the Hebrew language, Israeli comics, poetry, and music. One set of sessions will consider three texts: Israel’s Declaration of Independence, the “Hatikvah,” Israel’s national anthem, and former Knesset member Ruth Calderon’s 2013 inaugural speech in the parliament. (“It’s a number of years old at this point, but still has some foundational implications for how we understand Israel as a Jewish and democratic state, which is also at the core of some of the tensions that we’re talking about right now,” Goodman explained.)

Among the participants are singer Shai Tzabari, rapper Jimbo J, IsraAid CEO Yotam Polizer, basketball player Tamir Goodman, SpaceIL co-founder  Kfir Damari, author and comedian Joel Chasnoff, and writers and actors from the hit Israeli television series “Hayehudim Ba’im,” literally “The Jews are Coming.”

The series, aired by Israel’s public Kan broadcaster, is an irreverent sketch comedy show that draws much of its inspiration from the Bible and ancient Jewish history in general, as well as modern Zionist history. Its often off-color takes on biblical stories occasionally land it in hot water as religious Israelis have taken issue with its sketch implying that Esther from the Purim story was effectively a prostitute, among others.

According to Goodman, the show’s willingness to take Jewish source material and play with it is a critical lesson for Israel educators to learn.

“‘Hayehudim Ba’im’ is probably one of the best ways to learn Israeli history. it’s deeper than Israeli history. The essence of ‘Hayehudim Ba’im’ is around taking ownership. They are doing what was always intended, which is taking our text, that core text of the Torah, of who we are and playing with it and studying it and learning it and growing from it,” she said. “That’s what they do through their shows, and we think that that methodology educationally is really profound.”

Two of the show’s writers,  Natalie Marcus and Asaf Beiser, and two of its actors, Yael Sharoni and  Yaniv Biton, will take part in iCON, both discussing the show and performing a new sketch specifically for the event.

Lanski stressed that these actors, writers, and singers are not presenters, but participants.

“There’s nobody that comes to give a keynote and leaves. Anyone who is registered for iCON is participating,” she said.

While there are dozens of sessions on a wide variety of topics, the organizers of iCON said the time spent between the formal aspects of the gathering – the sideline conversations, the chats by the coffee urn – are in many ways more important as they provide an opportunity for participants to interact with people they would never otherwise meet.

“It’s the most diverse population, in every way, of any Jewish communal gathering that I can think of. It’s everything from high school students to Shinshinim [Israeli participants in a Jewish Agency service program] to college students, to CEOs, to funders and everything in the middle,” Lanski said.

“The feedback that we get every time we do this is one of the things that people take away is the people, the new people that they got to meet who they wouldn’t have met otherwise. And so that’s something that’s unique here,” Lanski stressed.

“With all that’s going on in Israel and in the world in general, to be able to come together and double down, with great minds and a commitment to Israel education, now seems like it’s as important as ever, if not more important than ever.”